Meet the Kamals, Burmese Refugees Living in Hartford | Connecticut Public Radio
WNPR

Meet the Kamals, Burmese Refugees Living in Hartford

Mar 2, 2016

An organization in Malaysia helped the Kamal family secure refugee visas to come to the U.S.

Shafida Kamal is 16. She had just moved to this country and then immediately started her freshman year at Bulkeley High School this fall. At the very beginning, it was rough.

"For the first time I feel so scared. Some of them, they play so hard it feels like bullies," Shafida said. "But then there are some friends. They're really nice, bring me everywhere, talk to me -- so I feel a bit comfortable now." 

At her home, a few blocks from the high school, Shafida sat in the living room with the rest of her family --her brothers Roshan and Osman and their parents Raja and Farida. 

"We are refugees," Raja said. "We have come from Malaysia, but actually we are from Burma, Myanmar."

Many ethnic minority groups have been prosecuted in Myanmar, also known as Burma, since the military took control of the government in the early 1960s. Conditions are still poor, despite the military playing less of a role in recent years. As of 2014, there were more than 90,000 Burmese refugees living in Malaysia. The Kamals relocated there over 30 years ago, and all the children were born there.

The Kamal family had been preparing to come to America for years. Raja was a ship captain back in Burma, but in Malaysia he became an English teacher, and his children began learning multiple languages at the age of four. Shafida speaks Burmese, Malaysian, and English, and she's learning Spanish and Chinese as well. 

Shafida and her brothers Roshan and Osman sit in their living room.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

An organization in Malaysia helped the family secure refugee visas to come to the U.S., and in Hartford they've been receiving resettlement services from Catholic Charities. 

"They arrange everything for us." Raja said. "Even the house to stay, food, our transportation, and for our health. Everything." 

The organization helps about 280 refugee families and individuals resettle in the Hartford area each year, and provides a wide variety of services to get them on their feet. 

 

The Kamals are settling in well. Shafida has found her family of friends and Osman is playing soccer at Bulkeley. Roshan, 19, found a job in food production in Windsor.

Farida and Raja Kamal.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Farida and Raja Kamal say they're proud of how well their children are doing in their new city.

Farida and Raja are proud of how well their children are doing in this new city. They are happy that their children are safe. 

One desire all the children share, however, has remained unfulfilled. "I just want to see snow," Roshan said. "I've never seen snow before."

In its absence, they had discovered Hartford's closest alternative in late fall -- the skating rink at Bushnell Park. It had taken the top of the list of fun things to do in town. The whole family had gone to the rink the weekend before. On this cold December Sunday, the Kamal kids left the parents at home and headed back for another visit. 

Shafida had fallen the week before, and was hoping there wouldn't be a repeat. They put on their skates and made their way for the ice. While it was only his second time on ice, Roshan used to rollerblade back in Malaysia and his skills carried over. He alternated between skating quick laps around the rink, and skating with and teaching his siblings. 

 

Ice crystals had been shimmering beneath the few clouds in the sky, and after one particular lap, Shafida shouted, "I saw snow! There, and just like 5 seconds, and it stopped again. I was looking for it again."

"It was small," Osman said, laughing. 

Osman Kamal takes the hand of his sister, Shafida, as the beginning skaters learn to glide on the ice at the rink in Hartford's Bushnell Park.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

As the Kamals were finishing up for the day, Shafida spotted some friends from school -- a Haitian immigrant named Dede and his siblings. After a round of "hellos" and much debate, the friends put on some skates for the first time and joined the crowd on the ice. 

For related stories and photos, visit WNPR's Radius Project.

 

An earlier version of this story erroneously spelled Raja's name.